“Famous Father Girl”


Harper Collins, 400 pages, $28.99

By Susan Meister

JAMIE BERNSTEIN, eldest child of Leonard Bernstein and the only one so far willing to tell family secrets, in her witty and deeply felt memoir, does much to enhance her father’s considerable image in his many public incarnations: teacher, pianist, conductor, composer.  

On the other hand, she is unafraid to reveal the other LB, as he is frequently referred to in the book, the one who was at the center of everyone’s life however disempowering it might have been for them, the bisexual, the lover of fast cars that he drove recklessly, the chain smoker (cigarette smoke features prominently throughout the book), the inconsiderate husband who failed to notice that his beautiful Chilean-actress-pianist-artist wife, Felicia Montealegre, was withering under the weight of his relentless life force.

At the core of Jamie Bernstein’s narrative is their ever-present family: LB’s brother and sister to whom he remained close all his life (who had their own invented nonsense language), his three children—Jamie, her brother Alexander, and a much younger sister, Nina—and more problematically his parents. LB’s father, Sam, a wealthy businessman from the Boston suburbs, expected Lenny to join the family business. When instead Lenny early on showed a much greater interest in music, Sam refused to pay for piano lessons. (When asked years later if he regretted it, he said, “How was I to know that he would grow up to be Leonard Bernstein?”)  

There is also much description of LB’s worshipful audiences, especially in Europe, where he was as adored as a contemporary rock star. All of this is background to the real purpose of this book, which is to describe what it was like to be a member of a family in which the patriarch is an active volcano.

Jamie Bernstein grew up in Park Avenue duplexes and in The Dakota, an illustrious pile on Central Park West where “Rosemary’s Baby” was filmed, and where a list of luminaries, including John Lennon, lived. She was surrounded by nannies, cooks, and a collection of world famous friends — Stephen (“Steve”) Sondheim, Mike Nichols, Adolph Green, Betty Comden, Richard Avedon, William Styron, Lauren Bacall and Charlie Chaplin, to name only a few. Nearly every weekend they gathered at the Bernstein summer house in Fairfield, Connecticut, where they swam, drank, smoked, and played word games with such intensity that some were seen leaving the table in tears. The children, in particular Jamie who would pursue a short-lived career as a singer/songwriter, composed original songs for each of their father’s birthdays, performed in front of the benighted crowd. There seemed to be a nonstop party that followed the Bernsteins wherever they were. They were rarely alone. Only Felicia, with her love of home decorating, seemed most content when hunting for antiques with only her children in tow.  

Summers were spent at Tanglewood where Bernstein famously taught and performed for fifty years. All of the kids had jobs there at some point. There were also trips to Europe on tour with LB or a month here and there spent in luxurious rented houses where their many friends followed. There were rock concerts and jazz nights that LB liked to go to with Jamie—he claimed that was where all the exciting developments in music were happening. Occasionally LB would use his fame to slip backstage to meet the performers, simultaneously thrilling and embarrassing his daughter.

Even as family life grew more and more fragmented when the kids got older, there were the relentless demands of performances, television appearances, lectures and composing. LB’s manager, an unsympathetic but frighteningly efficient overseer who supplied Bernstein with handsome young men in his later years, built a multi-million-dollar enterprise. It required LB to live to the limits of exhaustion. To sleep, he had pills, to stay awake, he had others. There was a special color-coded case in which he carried them. The pace, the pills, the smoking all led to a relatively early death for a conductor. It would not be shocking to learn that he died of lung cancer.

Any young person provided such privilege, surrounded by cultural movers who with a word could make or break a career, might find it difficult to forge a unique path. So it was with Jamie Bernstein. Her extreme nervousness at performing in public left her at a serious disadvantage for a career as a singer. (After many fits and starts, she finally recognizes that she is just not good enough.) She is also living in the shadow of her father’s fame, and expectations are high.  On the one hand, she is deeply attached, especially after her mother’s death from breast cancer at the age of 56; and on the other, she wants to move out from under the straightjacket of being a Famous Father Girl (a name given to her by a grade school classmate). But then, the gravitational pull of LB’s reputation triumphs. By the last section of the book, Jamie Bernstein is fully in the fold of his powerful image. “Alexander, Nina, and I quickly grasped that we’d acquired a new job for the rest of our lives: to carry our illustrious father’s legacy forward.” There would be a newsletter describing events related to him that are happening all over the world, scripts to accompany concerts of his music, broadcasts from the Tanglewood Music Center produced by Jamie, traveling shows, a documentary. It is a full career, and of course it is pursued in the company of her siblings. The Bernstein children are close. For anyone who has wished for a large and fascinating family, this is the book that will vicariously provide its pleasures.

Some will read “Famous Father Girl” hoping for salacious aspects of LB’s lovelife and details of his slow deterioration in which there were times he would in fits of irritation throw lit cigarettes at people around the dinner table. For others, the descriptions of his forceful presence—his raw sexuality is remarked upon frequently—will be even more appealing. Watching Bernstein conduct is to see how that physicality was put to use in his conducting—every part of his body, even his eyebrows, communicated what he wanted to his orchestras and by extension to his audiences. His emotions were laid bare, his passion extreme. There are clips of him conducting Mahler with tears unashamedly running down his face. 

It is common knowledge that Leonard Bernstein was a sublimely gifted musician, but here we learn that he was also a loving father whose daughter—she refers to him as “Daddy” throughout the book—has chronicled both his best and his worst inclinations. If one has to be tethered to an immortal flame, one could choose worse than Leonard Bernstein. Apart even from his classical compositions like Mass, Chichester Psalms, and Arias and Barcarolles, his musicals, West Side Story, Candide and On the Town, could be considered masterpieces. He imprinted 20th century music with his outsized talents.

Who might carry on perhaps LB’s most valuable legacy, that of musical educator? To Jamie Bernstein the answer is obvious: Gustavo Dudamel. With his own brand of charisma, his embrace of youth orchestras—he comes out of and supports El Sistema in his native Venezuela—and his famous generosity, he seems a perfect successor to Bernstein the teacher.

It has been speculated that it was not only the man but the times that made the man. Is there a cult of personality in the musical world that can match LB’s? There are beloved figures, but few who can match his incandescence. Are there the same crowds at symphonic performances who pay for a mere glimpse at the powerhouse on the podium? Likely there are, but the history of 21st century music has not yet been written.

Read Jamie Bernstein’s remarkably candid story of life with her father with informed reverence. He was highly imperfect as a man, but the adoration he knew in his life for all of his accomplishments remains firmly intact. At the Tanglewood celebration of his centenary last year, Bernstein fever was as evident as it was in his lifetime. Few will be able to claim that inestimable honor.


Feud at Honens Piano Competition


By Marsha Lederman, Dec 1, 8:02AM CST

IT WAS APPROACHING midnight on a Friday when the winner of the Honens International Piano Competition was finally announced. It was the last evening of the prestigious 10-day event, which had seen 10 semi-finalists from around the world compete, along with other events, including appearances by past competition winners. On the final night, it was down to three finalists.

“This has been the musical and artistic ride of a lifetime,” Honens’s artistic director Jon Kimura Parker had said hours earlier at the start of the night, kicking off what would be a long September evening. After three performances and well into the third intermission, Calgary’s Jack Singer Concert Hall was still buzzing, with keyed-up classical-music diehards awaiting the jury’s decision on the winner.

There was no hint of the behind-the-scenes acrimony that had preceded the finale of the Honens competition, which attracts top emerging pianists every three years, all vying for the $100,000 prize and a wealth of international exposure. The issue leading up to the 2018 competition was not a dispute among the young competitors, or dissatisfaction with the judging. The clashes, rather, involved sponsors and organizers – over which pianos could be used by the musicians.

“Our philosophy is that the artist must be free to play on the instrument they like,” says Paolo Fazioli, the founder of Italy’s Fazioli pianos. He and others associated with his high-end brand say that this year, Fazioli was not given the same access to participants as the competition’s other piano sponsor – and Fazioli’s chief competitor – New York-based Steinway.

Michael Lipnicki, a sought-after piano tuner who has been involved with the Honens organization for decades, and now owns Calgary’s Fazioli dealership with his wife Nicole, says Honens’s behaviour in this regard was disappointing and damaging to the competition’s integrity. “If you lose your musical integrity, that’s a problem.”

The Honens board of directors has now received a letter of complaint from someone on the Fazioli side about the way Fazioli was treated, and has been asked to review what happened.

The letter, according to Honens executive director Neil Edwards, expressed “extreme displeasure with me and with Honens.” While he can’t say for certain, he expects the concerns outlined in the letter will be discussed at Honens’s upcoming board meeting in December.

In 1991, Calgary music lover Esther Honens gave $5-million to endow an international classical piano competition in her hometown. Every three years, Honens holds a competition, awarding the winner $100,000 and the equivalent of $500,000 in artist development. A festival is held annually and there are other events year-round, such as masterclasses and performances.

It is a world-class, potentially career-making competition, attracting international pianists; its impact is global, offering debuts in leading concert halls around the world for the winner – Carnegie Hall, for instance, this February.

Both Steinway and Fazioli were official sponsors of this year’s Honens competition, as they have been for the previous two competitions. Steinway, which has been making fine pianos for more than 160 years, is the clear market leader. Fazioli is the upscale upstart, an Italian manufacturer that introduced its first hand-made grand piano in 1981. Prices for a Fazioli grand start at $140,000.

Choosing one brand over the other can prove prickly and political – as was the case at this year’s Honens event, where the Fazioli camp is claiming an unlevel playing field.

They say competitors were not offered equal access to their pianos. Each of the 10 homes where the finalists were staying was provided with a new Steinway for practising. Steinway pianos were used at non-competition festival events. There were Steinway pianos in rehearsal, warm-up and green rooms, and three Steinways on stage at the concert hall compared with two Faziolis for semi-finalists to choose from on selection day, when competitors determine which piano they would like to play in the various rounds.

“When we showed up at the concert hall, they had positioned the Steinways front and centre and the Faziolis in both corners. It was so obvious; you almost couldn’t see the Faziolis from the auditorium,” Vancouver Fazioli dealer Manuel Bernaschek says.

Further, two previous international piano competition winners, Luca Buratto and Szymon Nehring, who performed with the Calgary Philharmonic Orchestra during the festival – including a Mozart concerto for two pianos – were told they would have to play on the Steinways; that Fazioli pianos were not an option for them, even though both are Fazioli fans (although neither has committed to Fazioli exclusively).

“The Honens team knew I won on Fazioli. So I didn’t understand why they didn’t even want [me] to have the choice,” says Buratto, who won the Honens competition in 2015. “And also Szymon won his [2017 Arthur Rubinstein Competition] prize on Fazioli,” Buratto continued from his home in Milan, Italy.

Buratto was given explanations relating to the contract, which he was unaware of. And in the end, both musicians were happy with the concert.

“It was really a lot of fun,” said Nehring, speaking from the Yale School of Music in Connecticut, where he is studying. “I think we managed to do something interesting, I hope.”

But while there had already been tension over the Fazioli-Steinway issue, it was over this question – whether Buratto and Nehring could choose a Fazioli – that the tone of the discussion became particularly heated.

“Once again I am forced to write to you regarding the Honens International Piano Competition and your ongoing interference,” wrote Edwards in an e-mail to Luca Fazioli, the company’s brand and project manager (and son of founder Paolo Fazioli).

“Please be advised that there will be no Fazioli pianos used for the concert involving Luca Buratto and Szymon Nehring. Please also be advised that any further interference from your company or local dealer will result in the removal of all Fazioli pianos from the 2018 Honens International Piano Competition,” Edwards wrote in the August e-mail, which was obtained by The Globe and Mail.

“I was really taken aback,” says Bernaschek, the Vancouver Fazioli dealer, about the tenor of the letter. Bernaschek’s Showcase Pianos supplied a Fazioli to Honens, delivered to Calgary from Vancouver. “All it takes is just a friendly message; not a huge tongue-lashing or a beat-down like that. … To tell them that they’re going to be banned because this artist did that? That is just craziness.”

But Edwards explains that he was uncomfortable with how the Fazioli camp was behaving and the potential impact he feared that might have on the competitors.

Edwards had been hearing from semi-finalists that they had been contacted independently and offered Fazioli pianos for rehearsal, when arrangements had already been made with Steinway. Edwards says the competitors were put in an uncomfortable position, unsure if this was officially endorsed by Honens.

“In all matters, I act according to the information that I have and the situation that is at hand, to always look out for the best interests of Honens and in the case of the competition, of course, the semi-finalists and their ease and comfort,” Edwards says. “It’s a very stressful time for them.”

But Bernaschek says there is nothing wrong with informing competitors of Fazioli’s presence at the competition and that Fazioli doesn’t manipulate people to choose their pianos. “We did nothing sneaky or underhanded. We just let them know that this was available to them.”

On the last night of the competition, the three finalists each performed with the Calgary Philharmonic Orchestra, led by conductor Karina Canellakis.

Han Chen, 26, of Taiwan chose to play Prokofiev on a Fazioli, as did American Llewellyn Sanchez-Werner, who, at 21, was the youngest semi-finalist. With his swaggering, thrilling talent, Sanchez-Werner dazzled the crowd, easily winning the new Audience Award. But the night belonged to Nicolas Namoradze, 26, of Georgia, who ultimately won the competition after playing Brahms on a Steinway.

Luca Fazioli, who was there, was appalled earlier in the evening to hear Honens thank Steinway from the stage, but not Fazioli. “You’re doing it for the music, for art. But of course it costs money, so at least it deserves a mention in the final speech,” Luca Fazioli said later by telephone from Sacile, Italy, where Fazioli has its factory.

Bernaschek, who was also there, says the lack of a mention didn’t bother him, but what did was what he perceived as a bias against Fazioli and preferential treatment given to Steinway, “who already dominate in so many ways. Do they really have to try and squash any little performance along the way?” Bernaschek says. “Fazioli has definitely given them something to worry about.”

(Steinway did not respond to a request for an interview for this story by deadline.)

This will not be an issue next time around. Honens has agreed to an exclusive contract with Steinway beginning in 2019, information that was shared with the Fazioli people in the spring. Edwards explains that it is not uncommon for a festival to be exclusive to one brand, and that this was purely a business decision. “It was just a very good deal for Honens and more specifically for our prize laureate,” he says.

Bernaschek sees it differently. “I feel it’s a huge step back for [Honens]. It takes away the greater selection, the greater choice, for the musician, for the artist.”